IVCA Q&A Profile: Amy Francetic, Executive Director of the Clean Energy Trust

IVCA Q&A Profile: Amy Francetic, Executive Director of the Clean Energy Trust

March 2, 2011

IVCA Q&A Profile: Amy Francetic, Executive Director of the Clean Energy Trust

CHICAGO - “ Competition for energy alternatives has been heating up for years, as countries strive to become less carbon dependent. - œClean energy-  has become a defining term for these alternatives, as evidenced in the new wave of battery, wind and solar power. Amy Francetic, the Executive Director of the Clean Energy Trust, is leading the way in advancing those alternative technologies.

Ms. Francetic helped create the Clean Energy Trust while running the Invention Bridge, a start-up dedicated to commercializing scientific research at Midwestern labs and universities. Prior to that, she was an investment professional at MVC Capital and worked as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence for Stanford Research Institution. She is currently participating in the Midwest Alternative Energy Forum, which takes place in Chicago on March 3rd.

Amy Francetic was interviewed recently by the IVCA regarding issues having to do with clean energy and power alternatives.

IVCA: You are hosting the Clean Energy Challenge as part of the Midwest Energy Forum. How does the Midwest stack up against the rest of country for clean energy?

Amy Francetic: The Midwest has a high concentration of the following assets compared to other regions in the US: relevant research expertise, manufacturing capacity, financial capacity, and developing clusters in wind, smart grid and building energy efficiency. In addition to these developing clusters, we are very bullish on next generation transportation. A recently released Brookings report cited Chicago and Champaign as two out of a dozen or so leading cities around the country with the necessary expertise to grow leading clean energy clusters.

IVCA: What is necessary to make sure that expertise does grow into those energy clusters?

Francetic: What we are lacking is the alignment of the various stake holders necessary to ignite entrepreneurship in the sector, along with some high-risk, early stage capital to help prototype these promising technologies. We have an opportunity to lead the country in clean energy but it will take better alignment of these key assets, policy favorable to clean energy at the local and state level, and more risk taking from the universities, corporations, and investors.

IVCA: What are the most popular forms of clean energy technology? What has shown the most promise as an alternative?

Francetic: Wind and solar are still the cleanest, fastest growing alternatives to fossil fuels, and they are still cheaper to bring online than coal, nuclear, and natural gas. They are a critical component of any power generation portfolio. We are hearing a lot about the promise of natural gas, but the reality is there are many environmental questions about the process of extracting and re-fining natural gas, even though it is less dirty than coal. Clean Energy Trust is focusing its attention on non-fossil fuel sources of energy as the basis for innovation in the sector that we believe will lead to long term job growth and economic vitality for the region.

IVCA: In what type of clean energy are investors most interested? Are there definitive investments that are tilting toward specific forms?

Francetic: There is a strong trend right now in the investment community for capital efficient deals which include energy management software and smart grid hardware and software. These products and services scale like IT investments and are not reliant upon large expensive production facilities in order to reach the market. Also, there is a trend toward products and services that can be deployed overseas where countries like China, India, and the Middle East are making major investments in infrastructure and production capacity.

IVCA: What is the genesis of the Clean Energy Challenge?

Francetic: The Clean Energy Challenge was designed by the board and staff of the nonprofit organization to help "shake the bushes" to find the next generation of clean energy companies that we knew were here but that were not well known. The US Department of Energy funded the $100,000 prize for new companies through a competitive grant that we won last fall. We raised additional funding from universities, corporations, foundations, trade groups and government agencies to fund a $30,000 concept-stage prize for new ideas for companies.

IVCA: Describe the companies or entities that will participate, and what is the process for evaluation?

Francetic: Over 72 qualified applications were filed last December for the inaugural contest, and the top 15 will compete for the prizes on March 3 at the Midwest Energy Forum. An independent panel of judges will hear pitches from the finalists and will award the prizes that day. We received applications from a broad spectrum of clean energy including wind, solar, biomass, energy management software, web services, and advanced materials. We were deliberately looking for applicants that had a connection to one of Illinois' leading universities or labs and we were happy to get very strong representation from almost all of these research institutions.

IVCA: Last month there was an announcement from Argonne National Laboratory regarding the commercialization of their cathode material technology for lithium-ion batteries. What immediate impact will that have for electric car technology?

Francetic: That battery technology will make its way into the next generation lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles which will help to extend the range that such a vehicle can drive with-out needing a charge, and will also extend the life of the battery. Argonne has done a lot of licensing to young companies that bring the technology forward through entrepreneurial endeavors, and this is an example of such a deal. We hope to help increase the entrepreneurial support for Argonne and all the major universities so that they can increase the amount of spinout companies and licensing to young companies which will in turn create more high tech, permanent jobs in the region.

IVCA: Which early stage innovations is the Clean Energy Trust most excited about in regards to future power needs?

Francetic: We are very bullish about 4 main categories of clean energy: renewables, smart grid, building efficiency, and transportation. There are very strong research, manufacturing, and entrepreneurial offerings in each of these four areas. We are hopeful that our region's Fortune 500 corporations will join us in helping to define which innovations meet the business needs of these large customers so that we can effectively "pull" the best solutions into the marketplace.

IVCA: What kind of - œbuy-in-  do you seek from the power utilities?

Francetic: We are hopeful that the region's major utilities will join us in this process because many entrepreneurs and scientists have a hard time understanding how to work with utility customers and how to sell to them. Getting strategic partners involved early on with the entrepreneurs is critical in the energy sector because of the significant capital typically required to commercialize a technology and because of the need for pilot partners to demonstrate the ability for a technology to achieve its promise.

The Midwest Energy Forum Takes Place on March 3rd, 2011. Click here for more details.